Jason Ankrah might be the only known commodity and current Blackshirt for Nebraska at defensive end, but John Papuchis said Friday that he likes some of Ankrah’s sidekicks, too.
So much so, in fact, that Papuchis feels good with just about anybody and any combination of players on the edges of the NU defensive front: Ankrah, Randy Gregory, Avery Moss and Greg McMullen.
“Those four guys are relatively interchangeable,” Papuchis said Friday at the Big Red Breakfast. “All four are dynamic. All four can rush the passer. All four can be physical in the run game.”
While Ankrah is a fifth-year senior who has played 36 career games, Gregory is a junior-college transfer and Moss and McMullen are redshirt freshmen.
Because of the inexperience at both end and tackle, the Huskers’ defensive line will be one of the things to watch Saturday night as NU kicks off the season against Wyoming. But Papuchis believes the four ends and top six tackles who emerged through fall camp will hold up well.
“The thing that I’m so excited about with this group is that I finally feel like we have the depth that we need on the defensive line,” Papuchis said. “For the first time in the six years that I’ve been here, when I watch the film I don’t see a tremendous difference between the first group and the second group.”
Ankrah is the holdover at defensive end after Nebraska lost Cameron Meredith, Eric Martin and Joe Carter, who combined for 14½ of the Huskers’ 31 sacks overall last season. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has 45 career tackles (nine for losses) and has started nine games each of the last two years.
Moss played briefly last season as a freshman before an injury led to a medical hardship ruling. Gregory didn’t play at all for Arizona Western Community College in 2012 because of a broken leg.
There will be similar mystery at defensive tackle, where seniors Thad Randle and Brodrick Nickens are joined by sophomore Aaron Curry, redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine and freshmen Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice.
Randle has been nagged by knee problems the last two seasons, but Papuchis said: “Knock on wood, this will be his year to really shine.”
Curry is listed as a sophomore but played only a little more than Moss last season. Papuchis was lumping him with Valentine, Collins and Maurice when he talked excitedly about their futures.
“I hope in four years when they’re seniors I’m still the one up here talking to you guys, because I think it’s going to be a pretty special group to watch,” he said.
Papuchis also talked more about Wednesday’s awarding of Blackshirts to seven defenders as he spoke to the Big Red Breakfast crowd of 400 at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Convention Center.
In addition to Ankrah and Randle, the practice jerseys went to linebacker David Santos and defensive backs Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Josh Mitchell and Corey Cooper. Papuchis said coaches decided to hand out Blackshirts so early because the seven have “stepped up and took an incredible leadership role.”
“When we talk about Blackshirts, obviously you’ve got to be a good football player,” he said. “But being a leader, being tough, being committed to the program, being hardworking, being totally invested in what we’re doing … those are the traits that we’re looking for. The seven of them that got ’em, that’s what they are.”
Big Red Breakfast bites
» Papuchis said no decision had been made yet on whether Harvey Jackson or Andrew Green would start opposite Cooper at safety Saturday night.
» Papuchis spoke highly again of safety Nathan Gerry and linebacker Josh Banderas, two more NU defenders who will play as freshmen this season.
Papuchis said playing as a freshman is more about maturity level and toughness than athletic ability, and said Gerry has the “it factor” in that regard. “If you were to watch our practices, you wouldn’t know that he is a freshman or a senior.”
» Nebraska will have to keep tabs Saturday night on Wyoming receiver Robert Herron, who caught 31 passes with eight touchdowns last season: “If he’s not catching a lot of balls, we’re probably doing OK.”
» On going into his second season as defensive coordinator for head coach Bo Pelini, Papuchis said: “I expect to be a better coach than I was a year ago.”